Facebook knows your political affiliation better than you do
Spend more than five minutes on Facebook, and you’ll be confronted with the fact that the social network has become a hub for political discourse. Well, maybe “discourse” is the wrong word. More accurately, Facebook is a place for people to highlight their own political beliefs and taunt those that don’t share them.
Once the election is over maybe things will get back to normal and we can all share videos of kittens and people doing stupid things that make us laugh, but for the next few months until the election, things are probably going to get worse before they can get better.
While Facebook has become a dominant source for sharing political news, there’s a significant catch to what you read. Facebook curates its news feed based on your likes. In theory, it wants to show you things that make you want to come back and get more information from the site, regardless of the category. The drawback is that it tends to only show you one side of things, especially politics.
To track what your interests, Facebook keeps tabs on the organizations you like – not necessarily the posts you like, but more the companies and professional sites you follow. It goes a little deeper than that though.
Say you like a group that is seemingly apolitical, but maybe a majority of its followers are connected to a political group, or it is owned by an organization with well-known political leanings. Facebook may determine you are aligned with that political ideology and display news for you that coincides with it. The algorithm is a little more complicated than that, so it isn’t like you will follow one group and you’ll suddenly be bombarded by Democratic or Republican ads, but follow a few sites Facebook deems to have a political slant and the algorithm will begin to see a pattern in your habits.
One of Facebook’s primary ways of making money is through its targeted advertising. Anyone with a professional or semi-professional page (as opposed to an individual’s profile) can advertise their business, page, or individual posts. Once they’ve set a budget, they can then target people by gender, age, location, and likes.
It is next level targeted advertising – it doesn’t just send you ads based on things you may have fleetingly had an interest in, it bases the things you see on what you yourself have voluntarily shown interest in. Where something like Google Ads can’t tell the difference in something you may have looked into for work or maybe even just searched for in a moment of curiosity, Facebook targets you based on your choices. That makes it a valuable platform, especially for politicians.
If you are a moderate or undecided voter, prepare to see a lot of political ads in the near future as Republicans and Democrats dump money into targeting you in the hops of winning your vote. If you are very liberal or very conservative though, you will probably see significantly less – the people buying the ads already assume they have your vote, so they won’t waste the money. Alternatively, you may still receive political ads, but the same group may send very different messages to different groups.
If you’re curious how Facebook views your political affiliation, the NY Times found an easy way to check.
- To begin, log in to Facebook and go to www.facebook.com/ads/preferences.
- Next, scroll down to “Interests,” then click “Lifestyle and Culture.”
- You may immediately see a few political organizations listed, but click on the “See More” option until you get to the general boxes (they don’t have an image).
- Look for “US Politics”, and in parenthesis it will list your political ideology as determined by Facebook.
If you don’t want to see political ads or political news, you can remove the US politics option altogether. After that, go through and make sure to go through and remove all the other political organizations too. It won’t remove all traces of politics, but it will lower the number of political ads you see. After that you can also go through and make sure Facebook is up to date on other things like marital status and your education options.
It’s an interesting look at your own political ideology as seen through the eyes of an algorithm. You may consider yourself a moderate, but maybe your actions show you are a little more slanted one way or another.
Given that we are in the heart of the political season, you are going to see political ads on Facebook no matter what. At least now you can find out why you are receiving the ads you are receiving.